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Sky Thick With Fireflies

Sky Thick with Fireflies
Ethna McKiernan
Salmon Press 2011, Ireland

Many years ago, when I was in an informal writing workshop several of us had organized, a group we called Women Poets of the Twin Cities, a dark-haired slip of a girl appeared with a gorgeously lyrical poem called Nocturne, and read it to us. There was a purity of emotional impulse in the poem and an ease and beauty of expression there; I have never forgotten the moment in which I realized I was in the presence of a true poet..

That young woman who authored Nocturne was the poet Ethna McKiernan, whose second collection from Salmon Publishing in Ireland, Sky Thick With Fireflies, is a tour d’ force in the contemporary lyric genre. The collection is an abundant and beautiful work turning on genuine emotional impulsion,  mastery of language and singularity of image —all underpinned by the unique vision/voice of the poet in the intimate first-person.

The book is unified around the deceptively simple and poetic notion of experience as “sky”—Section I, Sky That Got Away, Section II, Sky Belonging to Us All, III, Sky of the Otherworld, IV, Sky Without End.

The overarching theme of these amazing poems is that of dispossession, a noticing of lacks, absences, things out of place that should not be—dearth, void, all of which of course correspond to the vast emptiness that is sky—and importantly, how that void is filled by love and the sublime.

The book opens with the poem Here, with an epigraph from the work of the great Irish poet Eavan Boland invoking the muse: …here the blue midnight surges/through the window as it blends with stove-light/falling now upon the pages of Akmahtova… In this exquisite poem the poet’s attention falls on the particulars of the moment: …this is the room where/the light whir of wings can be heard/sometimes, an indiscriminate brush of air/blessing all that’s ordinary… right here/is the mortar of poetry, the plain materials of love.

Surely these lines herald what we may expect from this work, proclaiming its wellspring. Immediately we are drawn in, with this exquisite phrase…..an indiscriminate brush of air/blessing all that’s ordinary… a  statement turning on the paying of attention, discernment of the inordinary within the commonplace.

The first poem in Sky That Got Away is The Sorrow-Flower, a gorgeous yearning-driven meditation: the speaker hears a child crying in the supermarket and writes, For a minute I recall the jolt of milk/trickling from my breasts eleven years ago, that June of absences….I was stubborn and wild/for sensation; the rest of me, mind and heart, anesthetized, numb.

So are we drawn into the singular world of what it is to surrender a child to adoption. These lines are at once direct, in a lyric forthrightness, how it is to refuse the drug to dry up one’s breasts, so intense is mourning. This is a poem of loss distilled to the elemental: milk and then “no let-down.”

Amniocentesis follows, placing us in the darkened exam room where the table was cold, the gel on my belly/was cold, the month-long wait for news/was winter tapping at my shoulder daily.

These lines are saved from reportage by the figure, how the month-long wait was winter tapping at the shoulder not once, but continuously.  Already in these first few poems we see how non-formulaic this work is, how the image works to define and color our humanity and surprise us into comprehension, empathy.

Birthmother to Her Sleeve is another song and psalm of loss. We are not prepared for the consequences of giving up our young; it is a shock, a devastation. Here of a sudden is a villanelle beginning with I’ve lost you since the day that you began./Small spark begun as love, you changed/to inconvenience as you grew, your kinsman/father running toward the exit as arranged.. These lines are repeated throughout the poem with lyrical power turning on the sequences.

In Another of Her Unsent Letters, we have …the imprint of his infant head/upon her shoulder like a burn/that still scalds a decade later. This image certainly turns on memory, certainly connotes epiphany, but the singularity of the image of imprint as burn makes these lines stunningly original. Each of the poems in this section articulates the burning space left in one’s life and heart by giving up a child. In July 4th, Late, another villanelle: Late now, and rain flays the lake/like stones drilling holes in black glass..His absence like a phantom limb, I break.

To me this is what lyricism is, experience reflected and refracted in and through the intensity and power of the image…the rain is flaying the lake, like stones drilling holes in black glass.” Confronted with absence like a phantom limb, the speaker, the lyric I as witness, succumbs to and permits grief.

The birth-mother’s dearth is a subject that could and does and undeniably has been described so effusively and prosaically—he was the sun in my sky, that you are gone has left a hole in my heart—and so on, that to write of such a thing demands that sixth sense an accomplished poet has of where to impose some restraint, a reining-in of statement, where to let the line expand—but especially, a unique particularity. Call the image a way-of-seeing, call it arising from a kind of literary and lyrical discernment—in my view such things come naturally to a gifted poet or they don’t come at all.

Stunning lyrical passages fulfill and enliven the deep vein of loss running through the remaining poems in the first section of the book.

From Falling;

I felt raw—the wind bit at my skin,
every birdsong was wrong, my throat
harbored sand and fishbones,
purple lupines hurt me with their deep indifference
and their beauty, someone’s death pressed
against my left shoulder, and I knew that
sorrow was feeding her horses again,
preparing the journey down.

What we seek from the lyric, perhaps from all poetry, is transfiguration of the ordinary in powerful language. What we also seek as readers of such poetry is transformation, to be empowered by a sense of the sublime—somehow we have come into the presence of art. That this poet “kens,” discerns the sublime and is driven to articulate it distinguishes McKiernan from others whose vision is far narrower.

In fact, these two elements are notably absent in so much of what passes for poetry today. It is as if poets are afraid of the power of the distinctive voice, afraid of the gifts of the imagination, fearful of language itself. Could there be a more exquisite offering up of what grief is than the quoted lines?

Section II of the work, Sky Belonging to Us All, widens the scope of McKiernan’s attention. The Peacock Has a Hundred Eyes dazzles us, with a touch of whimsy:

And what must the peahen think
walking through the clearing
into such a dazzling display, so many eyes
seducing her at once..
…Look, here comes one now, shaking himself
as if from a nap, wheeling his rainbow tail,
his bright salute of color…

Several of these poems pay homage to the reckless and abundant beauty of the world and the equivocal mysteries of Self: In Narcissus at the Pond, looking into water, the speaker exclaims:

How I loved
what I saw!
a hummingbird’s
red whir, the long arms
of the tree limb,
its black fingers
darkening the stones
below the water’s seam,
the whole world given twice.

In this beautiful meditation on self confronting self, the speaker laments:

..To apprehend
such beauty and never
have it apprehend me—
to watch what I love
disintegrate from my touch—

The final two lines here enclose the theme of dispossession pervading the collection in a nugget and wound.

Another strength of the poems is the finding of meaning in the commonplace, as in “Scissors: …how helpful,/tonight, their blades, as I shred to bits/old letters, photographs,/every trace of the unwanted past.

Also in this section, a loving elegy to a friend who committed suicide, a long, rich and detailed homage to the beloved, beautifully delineating the numbness of grief and how it gives way to the individual acting-upon we must each engage in to commemorate and effect healing. Eastern Standard Time 9-11-01 does more than pay lip-service to 911, with its sense of time slowing down to a grueling anguish, the waiting near the phone of relatives, and these compelling, poignant lines written while in Ireland:

Across the sea, the waiting dead assemble
patiently, knowing they cannot rest
until they’re found.

A theme of the stoppage of time by death and illness is carried forward in Remembering Karen Ann Quinlan:

For ten years, your face escaped
the maelstrom of emotion and event
which pitched its common sediment
and markings on the rest of us.

One can only marvel at this beautiful diction—maelstrom of emotion and event, pitching its common sediment…. Reaching out into the communal, the collective, McKiernan delineates the stasis and weight of daily life

Oh, you’ve been here before, the place
where soul slows its breathing
and each day’s gestures spin into the next.
The same laundry stack as yesterday
awaits folding, the same novel beckons,
the same bed sighs as you enter it again.

Our immediate world proffers gift on gift to this poet, as in Brother of Music:

I am in love with the voice
of a man who lives down the street…
a sweet tenor, deep alto
cradling my ears, steaming my bones
like the comfort of hot towels
in a winter without heat….

And a delicious and brilliant lyricism pervades Hay:

How like a lover it becomes
with its canny theft of the senses,
how I crave that abandon and surrender
to the thief. How at this moment
I would lie down and stroke
the tendrils of its fresh silk body,
open my mouth to its narcotic tongue
and let it fill my throat with the deep kiss
of new-mown hay.

The speaker in this poem has released herself to a transcendent experience of the world—that one perceived with our senses, that becomes referential for us of something beyond. The aching in these lines recalls Rilke’s engagement with the natural world as the incarnate sublime, how the human psyche craves connection, not distance and separation.

Late Evening reprises Here, the invoking poem of the book, in placing the speaker alone in a quiet kitchen where we see that the ordinary, a neighbor coughing nearby, a mattress shifting under the weight of sleeping children, offers up a sustenance, contains and nurtures us, in turn driving the lyric impulse. In August Storm, after checking on a friend, the poet writes,

I can see her as we spoke—
the lance of lightning
fierce as it pierced
falling rain once more—
her small knees tucked
beneath her arms
as she serenely welcomed
thunder, listening
through the long night
for birdsong which comes
faithfully as she knew
it would (though I did not),
each blessed morning.

The poet is ever a witness, seeing into experience and giving it voice, and in our best poetry, fulfilling the obligation of the contemporary lyric with its roots in imagism: delivering meaning to us within and from the image.

There is a quiet shift in this section toward the claims of daily life and child-rearing as in Lament, leavened with humor in The Men in the Basement in which an assortment of handy-man lovers is conjured up; the speaker is focused on the pragmatic until “Ted” shows up with his “bag of metaphors,” turning the world inside out again.

In Sand-Sculpting the speaker is building a sand castle when she notices an elderly couple together talking; there is a lovely juxtaposition here of the making of the impermanent thing that will be washed away with the love she bears witness to—How I wanted to memorize them! To have their sheen be mine.

Such is the poetic attention, the vision of the true poet: to see into the harmonies and disparities of our existence

One would imagine that a section titled Sky of the Other World might move the axis of the collection toward the spiritual. But instead these poems, in continuing McKiernan’s central theme of loss and dispossession, add to it the true displacement in contemporary life—in poems as narrative as they are lyrical, the poet gives us a tour on the page through the alter-life of the men and women who live in poverty, the homeless with whom she has worked for a number of years. Tuesday at the Outreach Office places us in this painful scenario: I have no Spanish,/but the boy/now has a cup of applesauce/and so the dance begins—phone call/after phone call for referrals.. Victor lays his head down on the table/and weeps, a language that we both understand.

In the poem Loss: An Inventory in Chorus, we have the serial complaints—with the rarefied precision of the lament– of the dispossessed:

I lost my shoes and shirt last night,
sleeping at that big downtown shelter
where bodies sprawl mat-to-mat
in the hundreds. I’d used the shirt & shoes
as my pillow; when I woke,
my head was on the floor.

After searing first-person testimonials in this remarkable poem to what it is really like on the streets of America, the last section leaves a lump in the reader’s throat:

Some nights I feel I’ve lost the dead,
my mother who would come to me in dreams,
her long black hair braided with softest feathers,
the small sun-catcher spilling light
at her throat. Gone now, the dreams:
bow to the streets, our future king.

A wealth of compassion and driving sense of irony pervade these poems; it is not hard to see that the witness-speaker imports her own lessons in loss to illuminate the cultural shame of our abandonment of those who have nothing.

McKiernan is again fluent in the language of dispossession and trauma in the poem Eamonn’s Story:

Addiction the hum of stars
gorgeous in their too-bright sockets,
all the constellations loved—
Orion, Charon, the Pleides—
stolen, rearranged by noon,
addiction, the fair-haired child,

The heart of this section is the poem Shelter, an epic series of character-sketches made the more powerful by the poet’s intensive attention to the particular:


When Ramon clips his toenails
at the chair beside our table and Tim
scratches his huge belly
above the too-small, on-loan sweatpants
he wears while his clothes spin
in the dryer, I know I am invisible,
a volunteer, another night attendant.

In Cigarette Break:

I could smoke all night with them,
Manuel of the clean pressed pants
who thinks I’m from the INS, Manuel
of the earned paranoia…

Many of us shy away from any and all poetries of the dispossessed, the portraiture of individual and collective pain arising from our own failure to nurture and protect our own.. We are so caught up in our own vicissitudes and busyness, we don’t want to know such stories.

McKiernan doesn’t let us off the hook. There are searing and quotable passages in this long poem, closing with this:

4:00 a.m.

When there is no light but the golden grid
of stars from the storage closet
patterned on the stained floor,
and no sound but an industrial hum
from the smoke-fan in the hallway
and the quiet turnings of sleeping men
dreaming, perhaps, of their mothers
before turning off the light, or else dreaming
of a different woman reaching for them
once, with love…

That there should be any hint of beauty, that golden grid of stars—any serenity or relief whatsoever from the living of life so truncated!

Poem on poem in this section reveals that the poet-speaker is unafraid to connect with the broken, to bear witness to deprivation. What the Mothers Might Think is unbearably poignant, Nicollete Mall Lament delivering up the city’s harsh edges in unerring delineation, the poem Chauncy a portrait of schizophrenia written with exactitude and–why not call it what it is – love.

For as a lyric poet, McKiernan loves the world, its beauties and its brokenness, and this is not a schmaltzy watered-down affiliation, but the kind that bears a laser vision into what things really are, in a profound translation of la condition humaine.

The first lines of Under the Dunwoody Bridge speak to this love:

On the freeway ramp above, drivers cruise
to 60 mph. Below,
I shove my body past the cop
through a chink in the chain-link fence
that rims the underbelly
of the ramp and I run,
heart thudding, boots hitting chunks of concrete,
heading toward the open-air bed where Maria is.

This poem in particular tells the story of dispossession with deep commitment. Otherwise, one thinks, these realities, the courage of those we turn our backs on, would be lost.

In the end? There is no end.
there’s another bridge at Hennepin,
one at Penn and 394, a half-dozen more
by the river or the light-rail. In this city
and the next, an underworld moves wearily
about its business while AM radio
claims poverty’s a myth.
But we are blind to all of them,
the tribe we will not see: we let them be,
we let them.

A favorite in this section: Dear God of H________.

Rain down, oh rain down, you desolate
blessed God of homelessness.
You with your large hands,
play it out: bestow on us every clement bit of justice
that you own, for today is a day tender as April,
and it carries the shudder of goodness.

It is our nature to look for the nuggets in the chaff, to see a light shimmering in the pallor of desolation and to cry out at what we see. So many of these poems, their resolute empathies and laser focus, move me, as a marginalized woman who has herself been homeless.

No one, we think, would choose to live amid such suffering. Quietly courageous, the very sweat of those she’s helped in a long career as a social worker in Minneapolis on her skin, the young lyric poet I knew has been transformed to a ripened` sensibility driven to speak the truth of having nothing–in our culture’s eyes, being nothing and no one.  One might say that this is the consummate burden of the lyric poet; unlike those who pitch a perfunctory quarter into a coffee can at the corner, averting their eyes, such a writer is constitutionally incapable of not singing what she sees or taking it in, making it a part of psyche and self.

The final section of the collection, Sky Without End, widens the book’s angle of vision once more. The first poem, Acorns, exemplifies the tenderness in much of McKiernan’s work—it is tenderness married to a fierce determination.

The section in fact showcases her most lyrical work.

In the poem Fireflies:

I remember the sky thick
with them in childhood,
their soft throb of yellow
glowing above the barn
where the woods begin…

What made me think
I could keep fire?
What made me think
I could keep anything,
much less desire?….

And in a gorgeous segue,

The light of a man
dimming. The tall pine
my father was, the fire in him
bright as fireflies blinking and hiding
and blinking their brilliance again….

The fireflies as remarkable unto themselves and then as metaphor beautifully unify this poem.

Again writing of her father in“Nothing Gold, quoting Yeats vis Nothing gold can stay..” an unabashed lament for the fading beloved.

In 2004 the widely admired poet Gregory Orr published Poetry as Survival, arguing that the first-person lyrical poem is about the transcendence of trauma for the poet. While we should and must remember that the successful contemporary lyric poem requires a consummate mastery of craft, the ability to sing, to elaborate, but also to rein in and levy raw emotion—to yield to the lyrical impulse and then work it like hot gold into something rarified and rid of the extraneous– Orr makes a point that goes to the heart of poetry’s raison d’etre.

In Passage, writing of her son’s first lost tooth, such filigree is made: I place this nugget of his childhood/a midget-sized, already graying artifact/on the white tundra of counter-top/and press its dead baby sharpness/against my skin. Here is a reprise of the burn of the absent infant’s head on the shoulder—the pain of absence, that our children will grow and leave us behind.

In keeping with a theme of the ache to possess what we cannot, these lovely lines: in Because of Them: Before words had formed/beneath the pulsing fontanels/on their infant skulls,/during the years they slept/through damp-haired Julys/and two-blanket Decembers…

The poems of family in the last section are especially beautiful, proffering the sense of having come easily in a sense, like cream rising to the top.

In the exquisite Ghazal:

An unbearable geography, this land of longing; the tension
of a song trapped in stone. Blaze, stone, then liquefy to light..
Even in the uterus before birth I knew—
I saw the verge of egg and sperm exploding into light
and wanted nothing more than this: to follow it, your kiss
upon my throat.
Dear God, I swear I’ve spent my lifetime being faithful to this light.

In the poem Artifacts, the past (bursts) into present tense. In Banishing Mother Judas, the intense regret and grief of the first section of the book, singing of the child lost, is reprised: His absence/swells until it becomes its own ghost/walking the three of us home.

In allusion to the child who was surrendered, the collection comes full circle. The penultimate poem in the book: In My Father’s Voice has these wonderful lines:

Dear Hearts, the same old lessons, I’m afraid,
from the same old man: feed the hungry.
Clothe the shivering. Fix your furnaces,
and pay off the Visa animal breathing
at your necks. But don’t forget
the whole wide world alive and wanting,
the humming need of it. I love you,
do you know that? Give it back.

In the inflection of all of the poems in the collection, the Irish musicality of Yeats, the touch of piquant Irish syntax.

Certainly there are moments in the collection in which the prosaic verges; a line asks for imagery and goes wanting. However, I am especially struck by the tenacious love in this work. However it all falls, is it not love for the world that informs the lyric, that compels memory and drives compassion, the lyric in turn providing assuagement to the reader?

Sky Thick with Fireflies is a beautiful collection that presents the reader with not one occult or mystifying poem to untangle with the intellect. No tricks here. Ethna Mckiernan gives us a poetry grounded in this life, bringing forth the beauty incarnate even in, especially in, our sorrowing humanity.

Jenne’ R. Andrews

The Dark Animal of Liberty
In Pursuit of the Family

September 2, 2012

Fort Collins, Colorado